Bob Kerrey is worried about our schools. More specifically, the former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator and college president is worried we are risking what he thinks makes our education system great.
We’re woefully underspending on education and underinvesting in our children, he argued during a recent interview.
We’re falling prey to the forces of censorship – forces that always harm democracy, he thinks.
And, in an age when terms like “CRT” are used as weapons, we’re either purposefully or accidentally losing sight of the idea that open and earnest debate is how American children – and American adults – can learn and grow.
“Education is going to be contentious,” Kerrey said. “The fact we have differences of opinion and sometimes those differences are expressed in angry words isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”
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What American history narrative is taught is a particularly fraught battleground, Kerrey thinks.
We ignore all of American history at our own peril, he thinks. We can’t get better unless we grapple with, and learn from, the good, the bad and the ugly.
“America has done some terrible things, so if you want your kids to be taught honestly they’re going to have to learn things that can be unpleasant,” he said.
This can be very uncomfortable for parents, he noted, particularly if a son or daughter comes home from school and says they learned something that conflicts with what the parents have taught at home.
But examining our ideas, as well as falsehoods and mythologies, is part of a healthy democracy.
“That’s the whole basis of education — to provide the opportunity to learn the truth and then have the courage to say it.”
Censorship or suppression, he said, is “really dangerous to democracy.”
Conversely, “If you tell young people the whole system is broken, the country’s a mess, nothing works, don’t expect them to be good citizens,” he said.
The discord of modern America seems familiar to Kerrey, who believes we experienced something similar in the 1960s and 1970s.
The difference: Rampant cynicism, Kerrey thinks, one that turns conversations toxic and makes it easier to attack the rule of law.
“You don’t have to look very far to find reasons to be cynical,” he said. “I just think it’s a mistake when people make that choice – because it is a choice. I personally choose to be a skeptic. There’s a distinction.”
“I am continually inspired by the effort of human beings to make things better.”
No one gets through life without suffering loss, said Kerrey, who lost a leg and friends during the Vietnam War. Everyone has grievances.
But a lifelong curiosity about what lies over the next horizon has led Kerrey down some unexpected paths.
After a routine enough start for this solidly middle class product that included earning a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he embarked on the first of his outlier experiences by training as a U.S. Navy SEAL. He was an officer team leader in Vietnam when he lost part of his lower leg in action. He received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Medal of Honor.
Kerrey was also accused of war crimes by the Vietnamese government for actions his unit took in a 1969 raid on the fishing village of Thanh Phong that killed 21 civilians, including women and children. He initially said the casualties occurred in a crossfire with Viet Cong. In the face of Vietnamese witnesses and members of his team who refuted that version of events, he’s since acknowledged his unit carried out an execution-style atrocity. He’s expressed remorse for what happened in the fog of that dirty war.
Many observers suggest his post-war life of service has been about seeking redemption. Kerrey said his experiences have taught him not to judge too quickly.
“One of the reasons I can adjust when somebody does something terrible is that I’m in the same category,” he said. “There are plenty of things I’ve done that I’m not that proud of at all.”
After leaving Vietnam, Kerrey sharpened his political chops working on a voter registration drive, managing a friend’s campaign for the Nebraska Legislature and serving on Lincoln’s Human Rights Commission. As an entrepreneur he staked himself in various enterprises that eventually grew into the Grandmother’s restaurant chain, the Prairie Life Fitness Center and other ventures.
Savvy and magnetism carried him to the governor’s office in 1982 and the U.S. Senate in 1988. He served two terms. Before Mr. Kerrey went to Washington, he enjoyed a celeb romance with actress Debra Winger. He quipped then: “She swept me off my foot.”
After he retired from the U.S. Senate in 2001, he became president of the New School in New York City. There, he grew academic programs and endowment coffers, but ultimately he faced opposition from students and a no-confidence vote from faculty. He resigned in 2009.
He is on the board of a NYC nonprofit, Pursuit, whose intensive software coding boot camp program lands graduates high-paying tech jobs. He’s worked with the innovative higher ed provider Minerva Project and its Minerva University. As managing director of NYC-based Allen & Company, he also identifies and advises social entrepreneurs.
Since a failed 2012 run for the U.S. Senate that saw him reestablish Nebraska residency, he’s content being a wizened elder, applying lessons learned as a board member and consultant.
Regarding leadership lessons learned, “maybe the most important thing a leader has to do,” he said, “is be open to the possibility they’re wrong.”
But he knows this: America, and Nebraska, can’t go anywhere without a strong educational system.
The country is “underinvesting in our kids by a substantial amount,” he said. “There’s no question we’re going to pay a price for it.”
He points out early educational deficits are increasingly difficult to reverse as children approach adolescence. Factors that contribute to achievement gaps are sometimes beyond the scope of schools, he notes.
High-quality Nebraska education is key if the state wants to keep its best and brightest.
“If taxpayers shortchange investments in the basic infrastructure – great universities, community colleges, schools – don’t be surprised when young people see opportunities someplace else,” he said.
He applauds UNL, his alma mater, for making tuition free for students from low-income households. He believes it will increase opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be there for children from Nebraska’s working-class families. More scholarship programs that reward students who want to stay in state to attend college, he said, “would help competitively” in Nebraska attracting and retaining its best and brightest.
Kerrey counts the state’s community colleges as important complements to four-year schools.
Community colleges are much more flexible to changes in the job market, he said. They are much more able to quickly address labor shortages.
“I remember visiting K-12 classrooms and asking, ‘How many of you are going to college?’ All the hands raised. I thought, ‘That’s not good’ – we shouldn’t be telling kids you’re a failure if you don’t go to college.”
Community colleges are also major accelerators for students going on to complete professional degrees at four-year universities.
If recent events teach us anything, Kerrey said, it’s that we need to lean into evidence-based truths and proactive values, not conspiracy theories.
After “the horror” of last year’s insurrection at the Capitol, Kerrey feels democracy is still viable so long as there’s free, open debate and dialogue. “It’s the reason why I continue to love America,” he said.
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